There was a time not too long ago where “indie” just meant “independent.” In the movie industry, that meant not backed by one of the big boys like Paramount, Warner Brothers, or 20th Century Fox. Ironically enough — well, not ironically to anyone who actually knows how capitalism works, but whatever — the boom of independent cinema was fueled by the big studios starting “independent labels,” which were essentially sub-studios to acquire, finance, and distribute more risky fare. While Disney couldn’t put its hallowed, family-friendly name on the brilliant, game-changing, and ultraviolent Pulp Fiction, Disney subsidiary Miramax sure could. This was briefly very good for the film industry, as a number of new and daring voices were allowed to be heard, reshaping the cinematic landscape like nothing seen since the mid-‘70s.
I say “briefly” because no incredible proliferation in any forum goes on for long. Look at the Burgess Shale sometime. During the Middle Cambrian period, about 505 million years ago, evolution got into the absinthe. The resulting period of crazy saw the genesis of animals that had never existed before with nothing even vaguely analogous in the later fossil record. Mother Nature basically said “fuck it,” and rolled the dice. And then, just like that, almost all of it died out, preserved only in a few isolated plates of shale for paleontologists to puzzle over and pedantic amateur film critics to reference in needlessly digressive introductions.
Much like the bizarre explosion of life documented in the Burgess Shale, the proliferation of “independent” film meant more and more voices were added to the mix, and these were of varying quality. (I think I sprained something on that segue.) The rules started to calcify as other movies were made that were not as inventive as the earlier ones, and merely aped or expanded upon parts of the first wave. The transformation of “independent film” as the description of a method of distribution into “indie film” as a genre had begun. Indie Films were about twentysomethings navigating the turbulent-yet-spiritually-void world of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Frequently self-absorbed, these quirky protagonists met other quirky individuals, fell in and out of love, and drifted through that nebulous existence post-college. Indie films had become as hidebound as any other genre.
Which brings me (finally) to this week’s film, Lucky McKee’s May. Made in 2002, right at the tail end of the indie boom and when total self-absorption was going out of style, it has all the hallmarks of the prototypical indie film. Quirky protagonist May (Angela Bettis) has an unusual job as a veterinary assistant. She falls in love with Adam, a bohemian mechanic with a dark side (indie mainstay Jeremy Sisto). She works with Polly, an oversexed and vapid lesbian (a pre-surgery Anna Faris). She has a brief interlude with gutter-punk Blank (James Duval, most famous as Frank, Donnie Darko’s bunny pal). In a bit of news that might surprise those who remember when this was about horror movies, the bulk of the movie’s running time is devoted to shy May attempting to forge the first real relationships of her life. It would be completely understandable if a viewer forgot the opening shot of the film: May clutching her bloody eye and screaming in agony.
May’s eye is a persistent symbol throughout the film, both as the initial reason for her lonely existence and a signal to the viewer about what sort of person May is. She sees the world differently than most people, and not just because one of her eyes is constantly struggling to look at her nose. May’s mother is one of those emotionally closed-off and appearance-obsessed WASPs that seem to exist only to raise their children to be sociopathic monsters. In a bid to make her daughter normal, she tells May to keep her eye covered with a patch while they try to fix it. Because there’s nothing like an eyepatch to make a kid conspicuous, his turns May into an outcast, which mom further fails to fix by giving her Suzie, a doll mom made. Mom forbids May from ever taking Suzie out of her glass case, setting up the sense that Suzie is the perfect daughter, seen not heard, beautiful in her perfection, while May is the little weirdo mom can’t help but be disappointed in. Not certain that she’s fucked little May up irrevocably, mom tells her daughter, “If you can’t find a friend, make one.”
May has taken this to heart to a terrifying degree. She lives alone, unless the army of dolls that are scattered around her apartment like an army of undead babies count. Suzie is kept in a position of honor, and May confides to the inanimate object. In most indie movies, this would be the indicator of a delightful quirk, some sort of manic pixie path to happiness. At any second, she’s going to put on some false eyelashes, the Shins will kick in on the soundtrack, and she’ll be as cheerful as her seasonal name. Yet, even in this section of the film, her pixiness is less Jess Day and more Carrie White. May is a little too weird, a little too damaged, and her attempts to reach out only backfire and drive her deeper into her own little world where her abusive relationship with Suzie continues to fray.
Suzie is inanimate, but she is controlling. She watches May constantly, and apparently influences her to do odd things, such as biting Adam on the lip hard enough to draw blood during a makeout session. The film chronicles Suzie’s path to escape and eventual takeover of May’s psyche, an escape that culminates in a rather unpleasant blood sacrifice. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it involves blind children and is one of the more horrifying things I’ve ever seen.
This is right around where May reveals its endgame. We were not watching an indie film about a pixie finding her wings, we were watching a horror movie about a damaged woman constructing her perfect friend out of the parts of flawed people. The last act of the film plays out in delirious fashion, as May gives herself over entirely to Suzie, and hunts the people who disappointed her one by one. McKee layers on the classic symbolism here: blood in milk showing us the destruction of innocence, the gift of a blind girl providing a name like a prophecy, and of course, that opening shot we have to get back to. The final shot of the film is pure fantasy, though the movie’s adherence to grubby realism grounds it perfectly.
May is a wonderful bait-and-switch in the mold of Audition, though without the infamous torture sequence. It deconstructs the tropes of the indie film, making the point that someone that quirky is likely to be more dangerous than charming.